A couple of years ago, I read a book that would probably fall into the cozy mystery niche. What makes it relevant for this post is one particular scene that jumped out at me and has stuck with me ever since.
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In the story, the mild-mannered protagonist becomes aware of a fire around the corner from her home. She rushes barefoot into the evening to find out what’s going on, sees the fire, and enlists a neighbor’s help to unsuccessfully try and rescue the occupant. Once the firefighters arrive, she watches them work while carrying on a “Hey, what a surprise to see you here, what have you been up to?” sort of conversation with an acquaintance. After answering questions from the police, and getting irritated with them because they keep asking her the same questions, the character then moseys on home, seeming more dismayed about being detained on scene than the fact that someone in her neighborhood just died in a fire and she couldn’t help. Her life just goes on with hardly a hiccup.
I’ve been to a few fires in my career(s), and I can tell you that this fictional reaction is atypical. Fires are A Big Deal. People come out of the woodwork to watch in awe, shock, curiosity, horror, sadness, and fascination. Some will be traumatized to varying degrees by what they witness. A few will enjoy watching the destruction because they’re not quite right in the head (which is a whole topic unto itself). I’ve seen grown men cry as they watch their worldly possessions go up in flames; blank expressions of utter shock on the faces of now homeless occupants; neighbors in a panic, fearful that the fire would spread to their property; and heart-wrenching sadness and guilt over innocent pets fatally caught in the blaze.
I’ve also seen tears of joy when people lose their homes but are reunited with pets feared dead; stoic resignation and acceptance of a “new normal”; strangers coming together to lend a helping hand; and parents being strong for their children in the face of adversity. Emotions and responses to a stressful, life-changing incident like a fire really can run the gamut.
Since there was nothing to indicate that the character in the story was absent of all ability to feel, uncaring, or a psychopath, this laissez-faire attitude to what most people would consider A Major Event in their community didn’t cut it with me. As far as I was concerned, the author pretty much lost all credibility at that point, and I haven’t wasted any more of my hard-earned dollars on that person’s books.
Writers, your takeaway here is simply this: Don’t emotionally shortchange your characters (or your readers) by not allowing them to react to the situation, whatever that situation may be. When it comes to fire, people may react differently, but I assure you, they will react.